The availability of information at hand in an instant is now a mundane fact of life. Yet it has immense significance for academics. I can remember when obtaining information necessitated multiple visits to the library, interlibrary loans, photocopying on an epic scale, card indexes, and all of the paraphernalia of search and recall that has now been replaced by a few keystrokes.
It used to be part and parcel of being an expert that you knew things other people would find hard to access: You were a part of the search. For example, I used to work on Vietnam in the days when finding information about the country was a major (and, I might add, rather enjoyable) task in which snippets of information from all manner of sources had to be threaded together rather like a detective story.
But in a time of instant search, that kind of information has been devalued. Well, at least to an extent. There is no need to be naïve about this state of affairs. There is still much that cannot be found. There are plenty of highways and byways on the Internet that are blocked by states and corporations that promote secrecy even as they declare a commitment to freedom, as has been so well pointed out in Peter Galison’s work.
Then it is hardly the case that all the accessible information is accurate or reputable. Indeed, much of it is not—a fact that students often find difficult to come to terms with (see the brilliant paper by Andrew Abbott).
But what is clear is that it becomes even more incumbent upon academics to be able to interpret and communicate information. Thus, a thorough grounding in what are usually interdisciplinary methods has now become an ever-more-important aspect of academe in both the social sciences and the humanities.
To begin with, in a world in which quantitative data has become the bedrock of so much of what we do, quantitative methods are of more and more importance. Even the most resolutely qualitative subjects like English, deeply invested in close reading, are turning to the “distant reading” afforded by quantitative explication as at least a small part of their armory, as the digital humanities gather pace (see the work of Franco Moretti on mapping the novel as well as a recent Chronicle blog post).
But, interestingly, that emphasis on the quantitative increasingly gives an equal prominence to qualitative methods, which have become more and more sophisticated. Even corporate interests have realized that they need to become involved in qualitative interpretations: Simply analyzing the data is not enough. For example, firms that deal in geolocational data like Esri are now moving into “story maps,” often with impressive results (see this Web site). Many apps also use maps to tell stories (see the remarkable London—A City Through Time).
In other words, the traditional academic skills of hermeneutics and indeed rhetoric have become important again, just when they might have seemed to be on the wane, as quantitative and qualitative methods intermingle in an environment characterized by a profusion of data.